Special Report

Teaching Assistants

By Rhea R. Borja — March 22, 2007 10 min read
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Compared with the digital tools at many teachers’ fingertips today, the technology of the typical American classroom 10 years ago was a Model T Ford bumping down a two-lane road. Traditional chalkboards still reigned, instead of the Internet-ready whiteboards now cropping up in classrooms. Clunky desktop computers were de rigueur, instead of today’s wireless laptops loaded with multimedia software. Instead of going online to upload digital videos and beam them from liquid-crystal-display projectors, a decade ago teachers still trooped to the school library to check out laser discs or VHS tapes.

And it’s not only the machines that have changed. How some teachers are using them has come a long way as well.

Feature Stories
Getting Up to Speed
Teaching Assistants
Outside Interests
Collecting Evidence
E-Learning Curve
Information Exchange
State Data Analysis
Executive Summary

Where once they used classroom computers for little more than rewarding students with games, teachers now can assign online assessments to get an instant read on students’ academic progress.

Where once they stuck to posting marks in electronic gradebooks or logging student attendance into data-management systems, teachers increasingly integrate technology not usually associated with schools into their lesson plans: iPods or other MP3 digital-music players, camera cellphones, and blogging, photo-sharing, and social-networking software.

What better way to reach students, tech-savvy teachers reason, than through the communication tools that the young people of the 21st century have made their own?

“You’ve got teachers using Web 2.0 applications,” says Tim Wilson, the technology director for the 5,500-student Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose school district in Buffalo, Minn., using a term for such interactive self-publishing tools as Web logs, photo-sharing, moviemaking, and wikis. A decade ago, says Wilson, who is also the author of The Savvy Technologist, a popular education blog, “that was beyond imagination.”

Yet while some classroom teachers have no trouble navigating today’s online autobahn, savvy does not describe the majority, Wilson and other experts agree. For every high-tech aficionado whose students learn geometry by snapping cellphone photos of shapes around campus, many other teachers shy away from technology, using it only when absolutely necessary.

“It would be very unfair to say that we’ve done light-speed gains in technology integration in schools,” says N. Andrew Overstreet, a former school superintendent and the director of operations for the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, a research and outreach arm of North Carolina State University’s college of education, in Raleigh.

‘A Long Way Off’

Barriers to teachers’ use of technology remain—so much so that some experts detect scant progress in integrating digital technology into the classroom.

Computers often take too much class time to set up and use, and teachers need more planning time to create technology-based lessons, say Jeffrey M. Kenton, an assistant professor in instructional technology at Towson University’s college of education, in Towson, Md., and John Bauer, an education professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, in their paper “Toward Technology Integration in the Schools: Why It Isn’t Happening.”

Learning the Latest

The EPE Research Center’s 2007 state technology survey found that states are offering teachers professional development to help them learn how to effectively integrate technology in the classroom. Some examples of topics covered in courses include:

Pocket-sized computing devices, such as personal digital assistants or smartphones, that can be used for instruction or administrative tasks.

Tablet PCs
Notebook-like computers that allow users to write or draw through the use of a stylus or touch-screen instead of a keyboard and mouse.

Digital Whiteboards
Large computerized display panels that create a shared interactive space in the classroom, akin to traditional chalkboards.

Audio files available on the Internet that teachers and students can listen to or create themselves.

Virtual Field Trips
Group learning experiences that occur online or by video conferencing.

Online Course-Management Systems
Web-based software used to organize information, assignments, grades, and discussions. Examples include Blackboard, Moodle, and WebCT.

A full 80 percent of the teachers reported in a survey by the authors that their students used classroom computers less than half their time in class.

“As skilled and enthusiastic as they were, the teachers in this study were only occasional practitioners of [computer technology],” they write in the paper, which was published in the October 2005 issue of the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education.

Access to high-speed computers is also inconsistent, they and other researchers have found. While the average computer-to-student ratio nationwide is about 4-to-1, many of those school computers, especially in rural and inner-city districts, are too old to run today’s flash-animation and graphics-rich educational software.

“[On] basic equity issues, we’re still a long way off,” says Mr. Overstreet of the Friday Institute. The institute is leading a $6 million project to provide high-speed Internet connections to all schools in North Carolina. Also, through a partnership with companies such as Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp. and Beaverton, Ore.-based Vernier Software & Technology, the institute is training middle school math and science teachers in rural North Carolina districts to integrate technology-based learning tools into their classroom instruction.

Still, technology experts say high points exist in the teacher-technology topography. Art teacher Jim Hopton and K-6 technology instructor Peggy Barger are two. They work together in the 500-student Jefferson-Morgan Elementary School in rural Jefferson, Pa., near the West Virginia border.

Hopton’s students use drawing software to learn art principles such as depth and perspective, as well as related geometric principles of angles and parallel lines. Through the interactive software, the students can better see and understand those concepts, Hopton says.

They also learn faster through the software, the teacher says. Material that used to take him six weeks to teach now takes his regular and special-needs students one or two 40-minute class periods to learn.

“Before, working with [tools such as a] T-square and ruler, they got so far behind. They got frustrated,” Hopton says of his special-needs students. “Using technology, they advance so much further than me doing a look-at-me lecture.”

In addition to using software, much of which is free on the Internet, Hopton and Barger upload online videos from unitedstreaming, a video-on-demand service run by Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery Education to which their district subscribes. They also use free videos from YouTube, the popular Web site on which anyone can post homemade digital videos for free.

In a lesson for his 2nd graders on blending paint colors, for instance, Hopton uploaded a brief video on Vincent Van Gogh’s painting “Sunflowers.” In a lesson on Italian master Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” he showed his students a video depicting the painting set to pop star Britney Spears’ song of the same name.

“All eyes are up on that TV. No one looks out the window,” he says. “I could have done this 10 years ago, but the cost would have been [too high].”

Toy to Instructional Tool

Many teachers say that classroom computers and other technology tools were little more than high-tech toys a decade ago. And it has only been in the past few years, some say, that training to integrate technology has really taken hold.

Incentives for Teachers

As of the 2006-07 school year, 17 states offer incentives for teachers to use technology in the classroom. Incentives include credit for completing technology training, stipends, grants to finance technology projects in the classroom, salary increases, and hardware. Some states offer multiple incentives.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007

Take Rhonda Moses’ school district. In the early 1990s, Moses taught secondary school in North Carolina’s 2,900-student Northampton County district, near the Virginia border. The rural district had only a single dial-up Internet connection per school at the time.

Moses was one of a small group of teachers who received training in the early 1990s to learn the basics of the DOS computer language for use on a handful of slow desktop computers. It didn’t go very well, recalls Moses, now the district’s director of technology.

“Of the 24 teachers that started, only four finished,” she says. “We’re talking green screens! And you were taught by a techie. It was too much for people to take in.”

Access to Online Resources

The EPE Research Center examined three avenues through which states are facilitating educator access to online academic content and instructional software: group-purchasing programs, online resources from academic-content areas housed in state portals or Web sites, and subscription services. In 2006-07, 29 states provided access to subscriptions. About half the states have portals or Web sites that bring together online resources from different content areas. Just 17 states offer group-purchasing programs for online content or instructional software. Most states offer one or more of the access options, with 11 states offering all three.

*Click image to see the full map.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007

Now, the district requires 40 hours of intensive training for teachers in technology integration over a five-year period. Northampton County also offers an annual weeklong “technology camp” for teachers, in which the participants are immersed in their curriculum areas through technology. Even though the summer camp is voluntary and the district does not pay teachers to attend it, there is always a waiting list, Moses says.

Two years ago, for example, social studies teachers in the camp used digital video recorders and cameras to catalog the social, architectural, industrial, and agricultural history of the county. Local and state history is part of the district’s 4th and 8th grade curricula, and the teachers’ efforts are part of a new district Web site.

Plugging In to Web 2.0

Technological Evolution
Classroom equipment has changed significantly over the past 10 years.
1997 2007
Chalkboards Interactive Whiteboards
Introduced in the early 1800s in schools, chalkboards, or blackboards, were originally made with slate. These digital panels are connected to computers and can respond to fingertip commands.
Desktop Computers Wireless Laptops
Personal computers that typically lacked highspeed Internet connections, or any connection at all. Some schools issue teachers laptop computers with wireless Internet access.
Computer Laboratories Laptop Carts
Many schools had one or two computer labs, which teachers had to reserve for student use. Mobile carts with multiple laptop computers for student use are an alternative to computer labs.
CD-ROM Software Online Software
Compact, read-only computer disks were loaded with basic, instructional software. Teachers can access academic software through their Internet browsers, bypassing CDs.
Projection Screens LCD Projectors
Schools typically had painted fabric pull-down screens in their classrooms. Digital projectors with liquid-crystal display can show PowerPoint slides and multimedia presentations.
VHS Videotapes Digital Videos
Teachers could borrow these film recordings from their school or community libraries. Through subscription services, teachers can upload digital videos from Web sites onto their computers.
Cassette Audio Recorders MP3 Players
Editing tape by hand required skills that many classroom teachers did not have. Teachers and students use these music players in listening to podcasts and in making their own.
Nondigital Cameras Digital Cameras
Videocassette recorders and 35-millimeter cameras were bulkier than today’s digital devices. These devices are used to produce short films and high-quality photos on classroom computers.
Paper-based Journals Web-based Portfolios
Teachers faced stacks of notebooks filled with student journals and portfolios. Teachers use blogs, wikis, multimedia software, and other online tools to help students craft digital journals and portfolios.
Source: Education Week

Educators such as Anne Reardon, an instructional-technology coach for Pennsylvania’s 7,000-student West Shore school district, says the advent of self-publishing software for such applications as blogs, photo-sharing, and podcasting has made it easier for a classroom teacher to share student projects, post lesson plans, and encourage student interaction online.

Some of the teachers in the district, located just outside Harrisburg, read and digitally record their study guides and lessons for English-language learners, for example. They post the materials on their school Web site as digital files that students can download on a handful of district-owned iPods, which students can check out and take home.

A few students have even recorded video podcasts on vocabulary words, so that English-learners can both hear and see the words being spoken, Reardon says.

Tim Lauer, the principal of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School in Portland, Ore., says the media-rich and user-friendly software now widely available has made teachers’ lessons more dynamic. He points to interactive software programs such as Google’s Docs and Spreadsheets feature. The free software allows students to collaboratively write and edit a paper simultaneously from anywhere with an Internet connection.

Wilson, the Savvy Technologist blogger, highlighted Google Earth as one software tool that some of the teachers in his rural Minnesota district can integrate into their classes. The three-dimensional browser software maps out almost any location worldwide via Global Positioning System technology.

“Who would have thought back then that Google Earth would exist, much less be used by an elementary school teacher and to zoom in on cities and fly through the Grand Canyon?” he asks, referring to a decade ago.

With technology continuing to evolve, some experts foresee a time when teachers will be obsolete. But others, such as Wilson, say that advances may present educators with greater opportunities to strike out on their own, independent of schools. They could, for instance, put out their “shingle to mentor 30 or 40 kids.”

Eventually, Wilson muses, colleges may stop requiring high school diplomas in favor of such evidence of learning as digital portfolios. “If that starts happening, watch out,” he says.


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